The Alice Network, by Kate Quinn

The beginning and the end of Kate Quinn’s thrilling The Alice Network seem like two different books—I mean, if it weren’t for the fact that Charlie St. Clair appears in both. At the beginning of the book, Charlie is a nineteen-year-old girl who gets pregnant. This being 1947, her wealthy parents have whisked her away to Europe to take care of her Little Problem. By the end of the novel, Charlie is a battle hardened young woman who has gone way above her pay grade to track down an evil man. The person who connects the beginning and the end of The Alice Network is Eve Gardiner; Eve is an ex-spy haunted by her experiences during the First World War and a hunger for revenge. Readers, this book is an incredible ride.

I felt for Charlie right from page one. The poor girl feels embarrassed and troubled enough even without her Maman hectoring her about her appearance and the way Charlie has probably ruined her life. And I definitely don’t blame her for escaping as soon as she arrives in England (on her way to Switzerland for an abortion). I was surprised at Charlie’s motivation. Her primary reason for absconding to London to track down Even Gardiner is to find her beloved cousin, Rose, who the family has not heard of since 1943. While Charlie was in New York during World War II, Rose was in France and may have gotten involved with the Resistance. Everyone but Charlie is convinced that Rose died. But when Charlie tracks down the volatile Eve, she has no idea what can of worms she has stumbled into.

Charlie has to work hard to get Eve to even agree to try to look for Rose. By 1947, Eve is a hard-drinking, traumatized wreck of a woman with mangled hands. But in 1915, as we learn in flashback chapters that alternate with Charlie’s story in 1947, Eve was a determined young woman who wants to fight for her country. She is fluent in three languages and might have been a shoo-in to the nursing corps or some other kind of war work if it weren’t for her stutter. No one gives her a second glance until a British intelligence officer figures out that she is a half-French polyglot. The officer barely has to sell being a spy to Eve before she signs up and is off for training. Eve is deployed to German-occupied Lille, to join the Alice Network run by the delightfully outrageous and fantastically competent Louise de Bettignies.

Louise de Bettignies’ life story inspired The Alice Network. (Image via Wikicommons)

In Charlie’s chapters, she, Eve, and Eve’s driver, former soldier Finn Kilgore, set off for France (after Charlie drops the name of the last person she knows Rose worked for before she disappeared) to try and find Charlie’s missing cousin. In Eve’s chapters, we learn about her harrowing career as a spy and the compromises she has to make to gather information. Every chapter reveals more about the horrors of the wars in France under the Germans, as well as more about the tangled paths Rose and Even had to follow. A name leads to a location, which leads to more secrets and another lead. It would be easy to give up because those leads are so often the merest hints. Charlie and Eve might be on wild goose chases; their firm belief in moving forward, with the support of Finn (who I now have a fictional crush on), keeps them going.

I checked The Alice Network out from the library almost as soon as I finished reading The Huntress, another amazing book about strong women, war, and the aftermath of war crimes. I wanted more and I was not disappointed by The Alice Network. The Alice Network‘s pace never lets up; I barely put it down because I had to know if Rose was still alive and if Eve would get revenge on the man who she believes broke her. I loved the fully realized characters and their emotional journeys on the roads of France. What truly astounded me about this book—and the book was pretty damned fantastic—was how much is based on actual history. Quinn writes about her inspiration in an afterword and how she used the historical record to create this outstanding novel.

Home, by Leila S. Chudori

Leila S. Chudori’s Home (translated by John H. McGlynn) circles around a black day in Indonesian history, while not revealing much about what happened on September 30, 1965. Instead, it details the long aftermath of the violence and the violent, repressive crackdown on communism through the lives of Dimas Suryo and his family. McGlynn’s translation includes some poorly chosen words and the book could have done with more editing, as it contains some typos.

Dimas Suryo, like many people in Indonesia, was targeted by the regime simply because he spent time with members of the PKI, the Communist Party of Indonesia. Dimas was lucky enough to get out of the country before September 30, but his first love and some of his relatives and friends were rounded up, interrogated, tortured, and imprisoned by President Suharto‘s regime. For years after his escape, Dimas feels guilty for his relatively easy life in Paris while so many others suffer. He also laments the fact that he can never go home.

After Dimas tells his story, his daughter, Lintang, and his ex-wife, Vivienne, take over duties as narrator. Dimas covers the early 1950s to the early 1980s. Lintang and Vivienne cover the 1980s to 1998, when Suharto was at long last ousted from power. While the first half of Home is an elegy for what Dimas lost, the second half is about Lintang’s quest for the other, Indonesian half of her identity. Dimas mourned his lost home for decades, but never really told Lintang what it was like. Her exposure to Indonesia (which she frequently spells out in her letters and emails for some reason) comes through her father’s cooking and her three “uncles,” who also escaped just before the crackdowns.

I liked the second half of Home a lot more than the first. While I sympathize with Dimas, he often struck me as a prig who lacks understanding for human foibles. Lintang is much more interesting. I almost wish that Home has just been her story because it’s a lot more action-packed and focused as a narrative. I much preferred Lintang’s discovery of her heritage and her father’s homeland a lot more than Dimas’ intractable grief. A lot of the first half, I feel, could have been edited out.

Home is the second book I’ve read set in Indonesia. It is not nearly as successful for me as The Question of Red because of it runs too long, is uneven, and needed more editing. At least Lintang’s story came second, so I can feel as though the book ends on a much better note than it began with.

The Verdun Affair, by Nick Dybek

36580718Nick Dybek’s The Verdun Affair turned out to be a perfect choice to read on the centennial of the end of World War I. This novel takes place in the aftermath of the war, decades and a continent away from the last shot fired. But even though we meet our protagonist in 1950, it’s clear that Tom Combs is still haunted by something. When he reconnects with a man he met in the early 1920s in Italy, Tom begins to recall the woman he fell in love with and the lies he told her that he still regrets.

Tom Combs ended up France in the middle of World War I in unusual circumstances. His mother had just died and his father scooped him up, only to take Tom along when he joins up with an American ambulance unit. Tom is abandoned near Fleury when his father dies of typhus. The teenage Tom then spends years scrapping as a war orphan before he gets a job recovering skeletalized remains from old battlefields in what is still known as the zone rouge, the Red Zone.

While at Fleury, in 1921, Tom is asked to escort an American woman who is still looking for her husband, who disappeared in 1917. Dealing with the bereaved is a special job. Though he’s seen priests deal with relatives with compassion and honesty, Tom blunders when Sarah Hagen asks if he’s ever met her husband, Lee, while Tom worked with the American medics. Tom lies and says yes. He uses a memory of another man, in another town, in an effort to comfort a woman who is almost certainly a widow. And then, when the widow asks Tom up to her hotel room, Tom blunders again and accepts. Tom and Sarah fall a little bit in love and Tom is ejected from Fleury. His former employer softens the landing for him, but Tom strikes me as rootless, especially after Sarah follows up on leads in Italy.

Tom wanders here and there, making friends and rising at a Parisian newspaper, before he hears of Mrs. Hagan and races off to Bologna. From there, Tom relates a story of continued upheaval in Europe. Though the Armistice stopped the war, the losses still affect everyone. A lot of people are still grieving. Society is still piecing itself together. In Italy, the means that Mussolini and his Blackshirts are trying stitch Italian society along fascist lines.

The Verdun Affair is a poignant novel of loss, identity, recreating oneself after upheaval,  and the chaos of war. Because it takes place after the Armistice, it forces us to reflect on the long aftermath of the war: the broken men, the holes in families, land that will never be the same, and more. Even though Tom and Sarah never fought as soldiers, they’re victims of the war, too. It’s also a love story, though fraught with guilt and bad timing. Because of all the complications in Tom and Sarah’s path, The Verdun Affair struck me as one of the most truthful books about World War I I’ve read for a lot time.

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The Verdun battlefield in 2005, still showing the marks of repeated shelling.
(Image via Wikicommons)

Little, by Edward Carey

38649806Anna Marie Grosholtz (later Madame Tussaud) had the fortune (or misfortune) to be born in interesting times. In Edward Carey’s fictionalized biography of the famous wax artists, Little, we watch the diminutive woman rise from orphan to tutor to a princess before falling into prison as a near victim of the Reign of Terror only to rise again in London. While there are elements of this story that didn’t happen in real life, quite a lot of what happens in this book is true (at least, as far as I can tell from a brief Wikipedia dive). The fictional elements dress up an already fascinating story with period details that bring the sights, sounds, and smells of late eighteenth century France back to life, all centered on the biography of a feisty young woman with a talent for recreating faces in wax.

After her father is permanently injured by an exploding canon during the Seven Years’ War, it seems like Marie’s life is destined to be macabre. Things get even more outré when her mother takes work with an anatomical artist named Curtius in Bern, Switzerland. Marie’s mother is horrified by Curtius’ work, but Marie is fascinated. During breaks between chores, she starts to teach her self to draw the body parts that are delivered to Curtius to be turned into wax models for medical students. The two rub along pretty well for a cadaverous doctor with no social skills and a girl with more curiosity than propriety. The two might have stayed in Bern forever if not for Curtius’ growing interest in casting people’s heads (to the great annoyance of his employer) and a visit from a French writer who tells them that there are better, most distinguished head in Paris.

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Wax replica of Madam Tussaud, formerly Anna Marie Grosholtz
(Image via Wikicommons)

Life is rough in Paris for Marie, or Little as she becomes known, but times are tough all over in the last fifteen years or so before the Bastille is stormed and the French Revolution kicks off. Before all that, Marie gets us an inside look at the hardscrabble world of lower class Paris entertainment as well as Versailles. The novel is full of Marie’s “sketches” of faces and facial features of the people she meets. Like Curtius, Marie is more interested in realism and uniqueness than anything else. In contrast to the artists Marie meets later, like Jacques-Louis David, she refuses to flatter and is not particularly interested in beauty. This fascination helped make the novel feel more real to me. After all, it’s set long before modern dermatology, medicine, and health insurance.

Little had me hooked right from the start. The characters, the setting, the history woven into the fiction, Marie’s grit in the face of being constantly treated with scorn because of her servant status—it was all catnip for me. Readers who relish sensory detail (smelly or otherwise) in historical fiction or who like reading about off-beat history will enjoy Little a lot. Like me, I suspect this book will send other readers to the internet to find out more about the amazing Madame Tussaud.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. 

The Collector’s Apprentice, by B.A. Shapiro

38746165In The Collector’s Apprentice, B.A. Shapiro continues her series of standalone novels of fictionalized art history. This novel draws its inspiration from the life and work of art collector Alfred Barnes, though it puts the focus on the woman modelled on Barnes’ assistant. It also condenses and sensationalizes events to deliver a thrilling story of murder, inheritance, and the Post-Impressionist revolution.

The Collector’s Apprentice covers three periods in the life of Paulien Mertens, alias Vivienne Gregsby. In 1929, she is on trial for the murder of her mentor and employer, Dr. Edwin Bradley. In 1922, she is on the streets of Paris, trying to make a living after being cast out by her family. In 1920, she is falling in love in London with a man who we learn, over the course of the novel, is responsible for ruining her life.

All Paulien/Vivienne wanted was to run a museum. As the daughter of a Belgian industrialist who dared to go against general tastes to collect Post-Impressionist works of art, Paulien dreams of creating her own museum. She is deeply in love with the emotional expressiveness of the new art coming out of France, with its bold colors and unorthodox primitiveness. But after getting engaged to a conman who destroyed the finances of dozens (and drove one man to suicide), no one will hire Paulien and her family has kicked her out. It’s only after she changes her name and is hired to translate for American art collector Bradley that she starts to rise again. The chapters set in 1929 and the reappearance of Paulien’s fiancé, George, make it clear that there are more bumps in the road head.

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Le bonheur de vivre, by Matisse, is frequently referenced in this novel. (Image via Wikicommons)

The Collector’s Apprentice is as much in love with Post-Impressionism as Paulien is. There are numerous scenes in which Paulien gets to mingle with the brightest lights in Paris. She has dinner at Gertrude Stein‘s house. She swoons for Henri Matisse. She gets to scour Paris for the latest, most daring paintings and sculptures. This book is so full of references to art and artists that readers who aren’t familiar with the Post-Impressionists will want to run to Wikipedia to get caught up. Even readers who are familiar with the art will probably want to refresh their memories. The descriptions of the works of art and their meaning are very evocative, but mere words can’t really capture the colors and sense of movement in a painting like Dance II.

On the other hand, it takes a while for the cat-and-mouse game to steal the show. It wasn’t until the end of the novel that I understood why George kept showing up. I kept wanting to yell at Paulien for the way she keeps letting him manipulate her or her first feeble attempts to use him. But once the plot moves away from the art world and Paulien’s battles of will with her mentor and the mystery takes over, I loved reading about the twists and turns Paulien and George’s relationship.

The Collector’s Apprentice has much to recommend itself to readers, especially readers who also enjoy art. Paulien’s journey from naif to connoisseur and (possibly) con artist is a delight to watch. The best parts, for me, were at the end, when Paulien is at her greatest peril. I enjoyed the ekphrastic sections, but the thriller/mystery plot hooked me completely.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.

The Safe House, by Christophe Boltanski

34524403In The Safe House, Christophe Boltanski uses the house on rue de Grenelles, in Paris, as a memory palace to recount his family’s saga from just before the turn of the twentieth century through the 1960s. It’s billed as fiction, but it contains a lot of the Boltanskis’ actual history—making this a work of auto fiction as well as historical fiction. It’s impossible to sort out what’s what, given the family’s penchant for falsifying documents and rewriting memories. But unlike other autofictional books, I don’t mind not knowing. The members of the Boltanski family are all drawn in spot-on psychological portraits. They all have so many eccentricities and phobias that it are so interesting, I don’t care if they’re not real.

Christophe the Narrator tells his story as a tour through the ancestral home. He begins with the car that his grandmother modified so that she could drive without the use of her legs, before taking us to the kitchen, his grandfather’s office and examining room, the parlors, and then upstairs. In each room, he describes the furnishings and decor before moving on to a family story. Christophe the Narrator goes back through four generations of oddness to find out why his family is the way it is

As far as Christophe the Narrator can tell, his great-grandparents came from Odessa after one of the many outbreaks of violent anti-Semitism in the city. The deceptions begin with that generation, as his great-grandmother invents (maybe) a background with a higher class family and a completely different name. The official documents (what remains of them) tell a different story. Christophe the Narrator doesn’t fret too much about the actual history. Fortunately for us, he relies on his memories and the stories he’s gotten from his uncles. Most of The Safe House centers on Étienne Boltanski and his wife, Marie-Élise. Étienne is French, though his parents are Russian Jews. Marie-Élise is a scion of an aristocratic French Catholic family in severe decline.

As we move through the rue de Grenelles house, we see the pair weather World War I, polio, and the efforts of the Nazis and the Vichy government to exterminate Jewish people. Marie-Élise’s efforts to save her husband from the Nazis and the collaborators are the pinnacle of a fascinating family history. I wasn’t sure about this book at the beginning. Its unusual structure put me off until I got a handle on what Christophe the Author was doing. Then, the more I read, the more I enjoyed this family’s foibles, myths, and moments of heroism. This strange novel is brilliant.

The Dictionary of Animal Languages, by Heidi Sopinka

40206964Over the course of Heidi Sopinka’s The Dictionary of Animal Languages, several characters ask Ivory Frame what her project of recording bird and animal calls is for. She struggles to answer every time. No one seems to understand that she’s trying to save these sounds in case the animals go extinct. This is reason enough for her, but everyone else thinks is a waste of time, a fool’s errand, an elaborate way of coping with the tragedies of her past, or some combination of all of the above. The more we learn about Ivory, the more I started to agree that her project is some combination of the aforementioned and also one of the most elaborate works of art and science ever attempted.

Ivory is 92-years-old when we meet in a remote cabin in Canada. Her only companion is Skeet, a fellow biologist. Skeet knows not to press Ivory—unlike the journalists and colleagues who occasionally ask—about her past. Anything before 1950 or so is off limits. But things have changed. A pair of letters (one to each of them) have Skeet worried and send Ivory down memory lane.

Before she was a biologist, Ivory was a girl from an unhappy home who wanted to be an artist. When her parents send her to an art school in Paris after her latest expulsion from a convent school, Ivory finds herself in the middle of the city’s Surrealist renaissance. The Surrealists’s excitement and iconoclasm encourage her, but none of her works quite capture how she sees the world or expresses what she wants to say. The only thing that feels right is the passion she has for Lev Volkov, a Russian expatriate artist on the run from the Soviets. The first part of Ivory’s life was full of emotion and activity—which makes it easy to see the other decades as penance or exile.

The Dictionary of Animal Languages is a very slow burn. Tagging along with an old woman as she ruminates about her past does not make for the most gripping reading, at first. But patient readers will find, as I did, that a bit of mystery about what exactly happened is just enough bait to keep them going until they’ve gotten to know Ivory so well that the last third or so of the book is emotionally devastating in the best way. This book is a powerful and brilliantly constructed story about loss, love, and communication of all types.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

Babylon, by Yasmina Reza

37842810There are several variations of this old saying, but that all go something to the effect of “A friend will help you hide but a great friend will help you hide the body.” In Yasmina Reza’s Babylon (smoothly translated by Linda Asher), we see the seeing play out over the course of 24 hours in a French city.

Elisabeth narrates the story of that very bad day in a highly confessional manner. Not only does she tells us what happened with her friend Jean-Lino, she also tells us about how they came to be friends, his family heritage, her troublesome father, and her vexed relationships with her mother and sister. She also tells us in detail about her efforts to create a lovely, lovely Spring Celebration party. The party is a success, except for a couple of uncomfortable moments. One of her husband’s work friends makes an ass of himself. Jean-Lino tells a story about his wife, Lydie, that embarrasses her.

Elisabeth doesn’t know anything is wrong until Jean-Lino comes down to the apartment she shares with her husband, Pierre, in the early hours of the morning to announce that he’s done something very stupid. He’s strangled Lydie and doesn’t know what to do. The sensible thing would be for Elisabeth and Pierre to call the police and let them deal with it. Elisabeth does not do the sensible thing. We get the sense from her confessions that she has a connection with Jean-Lino that she doesn’t have with anyone else. She feels like she’s found a true friend in him. So, she tries to help.

The plot of Babylon drifts back and forth through time as Elisabeth tells us what she thinks we need to know to understand why she didn’t just call the police. I’m not quite sure if Elisabeth is normally chatty or if she’s verbose because of nerves or if she’s just interested in rationalizing her behavior. I suspect its up to us readers to act as Elisabeth’s judge and jury. Speaking for myself, I’m can return a verdict that Babylon is a fascinating character study of an unusual woman.

Note on the translation: Linda Asher’s translation is wonderfully transparent. There were no strange word choices or weird word order to remind me that I was reading a work originally written in French. Reading Babylon was like being in a confession booth with Elisabeth.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

The Court Dancer, by Kyung-Sook Shin

36327117Yi Jin, the protagonist of Kyung-Sook Shin’s lushly written The Court Dancer, is not just star-crossed in love. It seems like she’s star-crossed with history. As a court attendant to Empress Myeongseong, Yi Jin is witness to the turmoil Korea faced as it opened its borders to foreign powers. She was trained to be a dancer and lady of the court in the court’s final years and, because she is a court lady, she has little choice but to follower her king and queen’s directives until the bitter end. The Court Dancer is one of the most melancholy love stories I’ve read in a long time.

We meet our protagonist just as she is sailing away from Korea—she is being sent to France along with the departing French legate as his fiancée—before circling back to hear the story of how Yi Jin ended up on that steamship. As an orphan, Yi Jin didn’t have a lot of options. It was pure luck that she ended up being adopted by a woman with connections to the Queen. Her memory and personality earn Yi Jin a place at the court as a favored companion. Yi Jin’s luck unfortunately sours when the Queen hears a fortune teller’s warning that Jin might catch the king’s eye. The fact that the French legate falls in love with Jin seems like it might be a good thing, but he is clearly more in love with Jin than she is with him. To be blunt, the legate seems to be experiencing some serious Asiaphilia. He collects Jin the same way he collects Korean books and celadon.

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Empress Myeongseong
(Image via Wikipedia)

The Court Dancer follows Jin as she travels to France and back, while the increasing political violence in Korea begins to pull down the monarchy. There is a surprising amount of plot, description of settings and places, and character development in this novel. It feels like it’s about 200 more pages than it actually is. The book is not at all slow; it just feels like an incredibly rich reading experience. Jin, as a character, benefits from all the attention. We see Jin’s deep, self-sacrificing loyalty to the Empress, as well as the people she grew up with. Loyalty, even to the point of death, is an important part of this novel, frequently referenced by the appearance of the legate’s Jindo, a breed of dog that will only bond with one person and is rumored to mourn their masters if their masters die. In this book, we witness what happens when Jin and the Jindo are given away to people who do not understand that the “gift” really means that Jin and the Jindo are supposed to be cared for by their “masters” even as they are servants.

Because she is an orphan and because of her four years spent in France, Yi Jin often feels like a homeless outsider. There is a powerful scene in the novel when the legate takes Jin to the Louvre. She comments to him that it seems wrong for the Venus de Milo and the Nike of Samothrace to be in Paris when they belong on the Greek islands where they were found. The legate remarks with typical imperialist paternalism that the statues will be better cared for where they are now than if they had been left. Yet, the legate treats these statues and his Korean collection as trophies and curiosities. He doesn’t understand the meaning of Jin’s costume and motions in her court dancers. Jin’s battle for identity reflects her country’s battle for independence from China, Japan, and the other foreign powers. Where does Korea belong? Where does Jin belong?

The Court Dancer places more focus on Yi Jin than on the politics, so readers may want to spend some time on Wikipedia if they’re not familiar with the history. To be honest, the focus on Jin’s heart-wrenching story instead of politics (at least until very near the end of the book) might frustrate readers. We seem to only learn about events in retrospect. Not only do we learn about them in retrospect, but the politics are very fleetingly described while paragraphs are spent on Jin’s feelings and surroundings. That said, if readers want an in-depth story about a person in a place and time that doesn’t often show up in English language fiction, The Court Dancer is a beautiful if sorrowful read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 7 August 2018.

Concerto in Chroma Major, by Naomi Tajedler

39078770Sometimes, after all the grim things I read, a simpler book with a happy ending is just what I need. Concerto in Chroma Major, by Naomi Tajedler, is a love story. The protagonists have fights, but the fact that the two leads are perfect for each other let me know that everything would be all right in the end.

Halina is a concert pianist who, at the beginning of the novel, is in need of a break. After spending years traveling from city to city, she wants to settle down. So, she takes a job for a season with the Philharmonie de Paris. The job offers her a chance to get to know her colleagues, to know a city, to try something new—and maybe shake loose some of the conditioning her rigidly controlling mother imposed until Halina spectacularly came out at the end of a concert. It isn’t long before Halina meets Alexandra, an American stained-glass artist who is creating a piece for the Philharmonie. Even though Alexandra isn’t Halina’s usual type, something about her draws Halina in. As for Alexandra, the fact that she is a synesthete who hears music in color, Halina is simply intoxicating.

Alexandra is a monogomist. She loves all the parts of a relationship, especially the cuddling. Halina, however, believes that all she wants are one-night stands. But the connection between them keeps them going even though Halina doesn’t know how to have a relationship and Alexandra is sensitive to remarks about her bisexuality.

Readers who are looking for a romance that isn’t set in Regency England or featuring a woman and a man might like enjoy Concerto in Chroma Major. (The steamy scenes between Alexandra and Halina don’t hurt in that regard, either.) Readers who like lush descriptions of music will enjoy this, too, as well as readers who would just like a break from reading about life and death struggles to save the world and just want a story about two people in love who want to stay that way.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 12 July 2018.